Fulton study: new jail would cost $2 billion

A Fulton County sheriff's deputy walks toward the entrance of the Fulton County Jail on Sept. 23, 2022. (John Spink/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

A Fulton County sheriff's deputy walks toward the entrance of the Fulton County Jail on Sept. 23, 2022. (John Spink/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Within 25 years Fulton County will need a jail nearly four times the size of the current overcrowded facilities — with beds for up to 6,418 inmates, according to a report county commissioners will hear today.

That will come with a $2 billion price tag, according to architectural firms STV and TreanorHL project.

For perspective, Fulton County’s general fund budget for fiscal 2022 was $847 million.

The county’s Rice Street jail, designed for 1,125 inmates, now holds 2,950; while the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail in Union City, designed for 260, holds 318, consultants found. They also lack space for services.

“This is a long-term problem that was greatly exacerbated by COVID,” said Alton Adams, the county’s deputy chief operating officer for justice, public safety and technology.

Overcrowding at Fulton jails has been an issue for years, but in 2020 it held 1,000 fewer inmates due to pandemic-related delays in cases, Adams said. Those inmate numbers spiked when courts reopened, combining with other factors to create a real crisis, he said.

County jails have seen 11 fires, 114 stabbings and 534 fights since January 2022, according to the study. The overcrowded environment has also impacted jail staffing, consultants said: in 2021 the jail lost 185 employees but only hired 130. Of 738 authorized positions, there are 122 vacancies.

“The existing jail is obsolete,” consultants wrote. “Our vision is for a new facility that provides a safe, humane, and sustainable environment reflecting best practices in pre-trial detention.”

The report cites expectations of Metro Atlanta population growth by more than 1 million in the next 25 years, with a corresponding growth in the jail’s average daily population; plus a trend toward more serious charges and longer average stays.

“Nearly 50% of the jail’s population are unindicted felons,” the report says.

Under various growth scenarios, the county could need from 4,792 jail beds up to 6,418 by 2047.

But consultants don’t just call for increased cell space. The report says the new jail should “create a normative (not punitive) environment,” focus on case management and reentry services, and provide amenities that help retain staff.

It proposes a vast expansion of healthcare and mental health housing.

Now 90% of jail space is taken up by housing units; the report recommends that overall housing take up 68% of a new jail, with nearly half of that dedicated to healthcare and mental health units. The added housing could be built in phases. Overall, 42% of the new jail would be dedicated to services for physical and mental health, visitation, recreation and other programs.

All that would require a site of at least 35 acres, and an increase in building size from the current 510,000 square feet to nearly 2.2 million square feet, the report says.

Consultants recommend the new facility be built on the current 901 Rice St. NW site. Construction is projected to take nearly three years, from 2026 through 2028.

Fulton Sheriff Patrick Labat cautioned that the cost of jail construction could rise by $14 million to $18 million per month if the county delays. But Fulton commissioners have been very involved and understand the magnitude of the issue, he said.

It’s time for a new criminal justice complex that will serve for the next 40 to 50 years, Labat said.

“We’re talking about not just warehousing people, but providing services that have been long overdue,” he said.

The current jail is “held together with duct tape and chewing gum,” with prisoners able to make knives from pieces of the building, Labat said.

“We inherited the Titanic, looking for an iceberg,” he said.

The Rice Street jail, which dates from 1989, sits on a 35-acre site. The existing building wouldn’t be torn down until enough parts of the new one are built to house prisoners at that time, Adams said. The new jail would occupy a different footprint on the site, making that complicated but possible, he said.

Additional space in the new jail would be added in phases, Adams said.

The county’s current jails were designed when the emphasis was simply on housing prisoners, he said. Now planners understand the importance of providing services as well, Adams said: one-third of inmates have some sort of mental illness, and some inmates are homeless. Diversion and societal-reentry programs are essential for reducing recidivism, he said.

Conceptual designers talked to community activists and jail staff before setting aside room dedicated to those needs, Adams said. The county is looking to change the way people awaiting trial are treated, and make the jail a better working environment to help retain staff, he said.

“It’s not just more space, it’s a very, very different kind of space,” Adams said.

Jails in similar-size counties cost less a few years ago, but the rising price of construction materials and the South’s higher per capita incarceration rate mean Fulton County’s jail will cost more.

Detailed costs and discussion of how to finance construction will take months, Adams said. And if the county issues general obligation bonds, that may require a voter referendum.

By the end of 2023 the county should be ready to seek proposals for final design and construction, he said.

Also before commissioners Wednesday is a resolution to let the sheriff raise starting wages, including at the jail; give current employees a 5% cost of living increase; and allow more overtime pay, all starting Feb. 1.

Adams said jails and police departments nationwide are raising pay and benefits amid a general staff shortage, so Fulton County must do the same to remain competitive.

Fulton County’s jails were under federal oversight for 11 years, ending in 2015. During that time they saw $1 billion in improvements.

Soon after Sheriff Patrick Labat was elected in 2020, he said the county needed a new jail, which he estimated might cost $500 million. A year ago consultants received a $1.2 million contract to study the issue.

The Southern Center for Human Rights found through a records request that in September, every inmate in a Rice Street unit housing people with mental illnesses had lice, scabies or both. The center said records showed 90% of those inmates were malnourished, not engaging in basic hygiene or exercise, and not receiving essential medication.

The unit was decontaminated at the end of September, but chronic short staffing raised concerns that similar issues would continue.

The South Fulton facility, used primarily to house women, was bought from Union City, Adams said. It’s smaller than Rice Street but not in much better shape, he said.

Critics have also pointed to the slow pace of processing cases, saying speedier indictments and releasing people who simply can’t afford bail would reduce overcrowding.

As a stopgap, in August the county announced it would lease 700 jail beds from Atlanta. That agreement will cost the county about $50 million over its four-year span, if the 700-inmate maximum is maintained, Adams said.

In late 2021 Fulton County sent 100 inmates to the Cobb County jail. Now that number has grown to about 250, Adams said.